Art and Sovereignty
November 2014

Molly Malone Statue

Before its removal to facilitate construction work for the new tramline, the sculpture representing Molly Malone situated at the bottom of Dublin’s Grafton Street prompted a train of thought. Over the years Molly has evolved as something of a stop off on the Dublin tourist trail; she became the unofficial symbol of the city while tourists began to take photographs of themselves with her. The presence of tourists at the Molly ‘statue’ attracted others. Leprechauns and colleens in various incarnations appeared at the site offering to pose with Molly in group photographs in return for a few coins. For myself, a scenario presented itself: When the head of Trinity College Dublin looked out the window of his residence, through the trees and over the wall he (only male academics have held the position) will just about see Molly’s rear, and the action surrounding her. What might he think as he looks out the Palladian building that serves as the university’s grace and favour residence for the Provost, one of the finest examples of such architecture in Ireland? Might the Provost be appalled at the kitschy commercialization happening under his eyes, might he appreciate Irish enterprise culture at work, or might he anticipate this commerce breeching the wall that partitions Trinity from the streets of central Dublin? But, in retrospect, that was a simplistic and perhaps nostalgic scenario. It assumed that the players represented distinct sectors in Irish society—academic, artistic, the business and black economies—which form the foundations of a functioning democracy. The truth is that such foundations are seeping into the same mire.

When the McNulty scandal broke in late September, opposition politicians held up their hands in a fit of moral outrage. Shock horror, the Fine Gael party in government has appointed one of its own to the Board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art for blatant political ends! Fianna Fáil politicians reacted as though this was the worst case of government corruption that had ever befallen the State. If the scandal continued to make headlines for longer than pundits might have predicted, it wasn’t so much because of the contempt Fine Gael handlers showed for IMMA’s authority in the way McNulty was parachuted onto the Board, (the Museum was suddenly elevated in Opposition minds to a most important national institution, a view unlikely to survive as far as the next election), but because of the Fine Gael backbenchers who broke rank with criticisms in the media, some spoiling for a leadership challenge. As far as I am aware, thus far, IMMA has maintained what seems a dignified silence. In fact, public institutions rarely comment on contentious matters; their need for government funding is always a major inhibiting factor. Then, the National Campaign for the Arts entered the fray. The NCFA is the organization set up as a political lobby to combat the severe government cutbacks imposed on arts organizations since the outset of the so-called Great Recession. The October Newsletter of the NCFA in what appears to be a direct response to the McNulty scandal issued a broadside under headings such as, ‘we want transparency and good governance’ and ‘we want autonomy and independence’. The Newsletter also brought to bear a suggestion or recommendation made in an earlier Report to Government: to further economise on cultural institutions by merging a number of their Boards of Management. While the government threatened to cut Boards for reason of economy it simultaneously expanded the IMMA Board for its own end. The McNulty scandal is hopefully a fatal blow to the efficacy of such recommendations as the merging of Boards, a recommendation which would serve to trivialize the functions of the arts.

At the same time it should be noted that the NCFA, a lobby ostensibly dedicated to funding matters, is minded to embrace ethical issues (one might argue the inevitability of this since political decisions are not reducible to pure rationality). One of the problems here is that governance of the arts by arts people is no guarantee of good practice. While the NCFA appears to have directed its broadside to government, in order for arts organizations to occupy the high moral ground such calls for good governance need to be seen to work in both directions. But, in respect to transparency, it is the case that there are publically funded art organizations who do not publish basic information on their website explaining their governance and structures. This is unacceptable. But to concentrate on the NCFA focus which is on the national institutions, governance in these instances tend to be established through legislation which sets out management structures in each case. A common feature is that these management boards will include government appointees. Many of these appointees are in one way or another party political apparatchiks and it is this which gives rise to public disdain for all so-called Quangos. However, there is no escaping the fact that government will want return for the distribution of public monies. In recent years government has increased its demands not just for greater efficiencies, but for greater ‘accountability’. This apparent ethical dimension that the public purse should be used prudently is open to the accusation of increased control of artistic content because spending is now measured or made accountable within economic determinants. There is a highly significant difference between curtailing or abandoning an art project due to insufficient funds, and a project that is at least in part formed by non-artistic strictures from the outset.

This should be of enormous concern for arts managers but I am not aware of reflexive comment from the NCFA on terms of engagement with government. In this context it is necessary to ask what their confluence of the terms ‘autonomy’, ‘good governance’ etc. in their October Newsletter might mean? There is evidence that the agenda of accounting is now a given for many arts organizations. It seems a Foucauldian evolution to self-regulation where the client has assimilated the rules of the patron to the point of reproduction is forging a path to a different kind of order, an order that is antithetical to the fine arts on anything other than a commercial basis. The National College of Art and Design even excels its masters towards this new order. That it is a one-dimensional order which destroys older notions of ‘good governance’ such as observing the rights of workers doesn’t matter. The emergence of a culture which rewards evidence of business enterprise has meant the abandonment of a rounder understanding of the responsibilities involved in management. In a situation where no-one will be exposed or censured for wrong-doing, where anyone who tries to expose wrong-doing will be ostracized, a cosy complicity among the players persists. The changes taking place in arts management involve moves which are being played out as a game rather than as something with deadly consequences. It will be interesting to see where the NCFA goes from here.


‘Molly Malone Statue,’ 1988, by Jeanne Rynhart